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Arts spaces as workplaces – London’s Royal Festival Hall

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View from the Royal Festival Hall
A pod from the London Eye (EyePod?) being towed donwstream, photographed from the Members' Area of The Royal Festival Hall on London's South Bank.

Since I went freelance nearly four years ago, I’ve spent a lot of time working in – and a lot of time talking aboutThe Royal Festival Hall in London’s South Bank Centre.

Today is the last day I’ll cycle up here from home in London. Next week we’re moving to Bristol, and really looking forward to our new family adventures out west.

I’ve been reflecting on what it is about the Royal Festival Hall, the Members’ Area in particular, that makes it such a great place to work as a freelance.

As fewer people need to base themselves in traditional offices, is there anything you could abstract from this and blend in to other “public” spaces, I wonder?

(It’s not a complete list, but here are some of the things that I like, and few related things that trouble me slightly. It’s a bit cause and effect, and I don’t think I’d try to change it. I’m concentrating on the Members’ Area. There is seating all over the building that anybody can use, members and non-members, and you can access the wifi from most of them.)

Some things I like  (in no particular order):

  1. Once you’ve paid your annual membership you know that any additional costs are entirely up to you and will usually involve food and drink from the well stocked bar
  2. It’s a members’ area, but it’s in “public space” and you’re always reminded of that by being able to walk right in, and then the views back out over London’s landmarks through wide-angle windows.
  3. The soundtrack changes, recognisably, throughout the day.
  4. People. The staff are friendly and polite. And there are lots of fellow freelances. You’re never more than a few yards away from then next great television series in the making, a world-changing web project, a language teaching tutorial or a careers counselling session.
  5. You don’t have to book (see below).
  6. You can bring a guest. It’s a great place to meet clients. A great chance, often, for them to get out of their usual work habitat and get a different perspective on things. It’s hard not to be inspired by the place, and all its (hi-)stories.
  7. The river. Just knowing it’s there. Ever-changning, breathing, reflecting and refreshing.
  8. The free wifi. When it’s not being hogged (see below).
  9. You might bump in to someone you know here, friends, family (I once bumped in to my Mum here) and fellow freelances. You can freelance in “parallel” and watch each other’s stuff while you grab a coffee.
  10. The free lunchtime concerts in the Clore Ballroom, especially jazz on Fridays.
  11. It metamorphoses at 6:30 each evening as the day-shift is gradually replaced by besuited and bejewelled concert-goers enjoying a pre-performance aperitif.

A couple of things that trouble me (a little bit)

  1. Table-hogs. People who arrive at 10:00am, grab a table and then often leave it with their stuff on for hours at a time. This does seem to be improving as the membership staff have picked up on it, and so – unfortunately – have a few opportunist thieves, who have the audacity and front to stake out the place and remove unwatched valuable items.
  2. (Connected, but not quite the same) Not knowing if there’ll be a table available. The members’ area has become a victim of its own success, large queues form just before 10am outside the main doors. It’s a bit like Dalyan in South West Turkey, or Dahab on the Sinai Peninsula. It’s only a matter of time before best kept are on the cover of all the holiday brochures. And I must confess to contributing to this through my enthusiasm for the place. I understand there are plans afoot to increase seat numbers without damaging the unique atmosphere.
  3. Lunchtime latency. Video viewing and audio listening peak, not surprisingly. If you seriously need to use the internet for your work, get a wireless broadband dongle.

Do you freelance in the Royal Festival Hall, or another public / arts space? What do you like about it?

And if anyone’s got any recommendations for similar places in Bristol (The Watershed?), I’d love to hear from you – in comments or on Twitter.

[Information about South Bank Centre Membership]